I’m John Troyer. I grew up in the American Funeral industry, and now direct a UK research center focused on the interdisciplinary study of death, dying and dead bodies. I also run the Death Reference Desk, where we scour the web and beyond for All Things Death: from interesting blogs and recommended books to commentary and analysis of death in the news. The coronavirus pandemic crisis has, tragically, forced many of us to think about and talk about death more than ever — and these discussions matter. As bodies continue to pile up in hospitals and in parks, it’s also highlighted just how unprepared we are to manage the logistics of death.

Last week, the MIT Press published my book, “Technologies of the Human Corpse,” which examines the relationship of the dead body with technology through history, from 19th-century embalming machines and photography, to the AIDS Epidemic of the 1980s and the death-prevention technologies of today.

I’m here from 12 – 2 pm EST to field any questions you may have about death — good death, bad death, sad or nuanced death, culturally- and politically-charged death. Want to learn more about the “Happy Death Movement” of the 1970s? The black market in human body parts? How dead bodies are managed during mass fatality events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic? Anything goes. Let’s talk death.

Proof: https://i.redd.it/cg26p2nmo2u41.jpg

EDIT: I'm going to close the discussion now. Great questions! Thanks to everyone who participated. Feel free to follow me on Twitter @deathref and @futurecemetery as well as the Centre for Death and Society @cendeathsociety for regular updates on all things death, dying, and dead bodies. Death wins. Death always wins. Respect death.

Comments: 85 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

borealism-12 karma

How/why do you think that our relationship with death is made stronger by our ability to control it? I.e. Organ donation, euthanasia, method of burial. Could explain why ideas of mass burial are so grotesque to most people, or why images of FEMA sites cause so much anxiety.

the_mit_press15 karma

In general, I think we first world humans tend to get anxious about dead bodies, especially when there's a sense that we can't control what happens. Or if a dead body is in the "wrong place." So mass burial can be seen as a failure, when in fact it's the least worst option during a mass fatality event (and not a crime scene -- that's an important distinction to make). But I do agree that controlling our destiny with death is crucial to many many people, so organ donation becomes an important way to "give the gift of life" even if families don't often control/choose who receives the organs. Assisted dying is another key issue, where control is a core issue. Right to Die movements since the 1970s have also built support around the right to choose how a person ends their life. Ironically enough, I think many people only become aware of these control considerations when they suddenly can't control what happens -- and that is why Advance Directives, Living Wills, and communication with next-of-kin on all these topics is so important.

the_mit_press4 karma

Control is a huge issue. Ironically enough, I think that many people only become aware of the control issues when it's suddenly not possible or compromised. That's why it's so important to create Living Wills and Advance Directives and communicated end-of-life wishes with next-of-kin.

Wanderall20208 karma

Why do people think it's a good idea to keep a human heart beating/lungs breathing at all costs (emotional, fiscal, and labor)? Why don't we value human suffering like we do our pets - i.e. allowing them to escape the worst of the inevitable decline towards death?

the_mit_press3 karma

Different families have different approaches when it comes to a loved one on life support. There's a heart/brain divide here too. Or a kind of divide. Many religious faiths and secular beliefs see the "person" as being in the heart as opposed to the brain. So as long as the heart beats, then the person is alive. You can substitute person for soul, too. This is why the Pope is always the Pope as long as his heart beats. Unless you retire early.....

Wanderall2020-6 karma

I'm reading that as "because, religion" - which really means no reason at all, just tradition and social pressure. Let me ask it a different way - why do people see never-ending indescribable pain as preferable to death for their loved ones?

the_mit_press8 karma

I would include very secular families in that mix too. To be fair, I've seen religiously devout families decide to stop life support as an act of mercy -- so in that way the religion plays a role we might not expect. I say this as a non-believer. My paternal Grandmother was a DEVOUT Christian (Seventh Day Adventist) and made it clear she wanted no life support so that she could go be with God when she died. Here's the key takeaway -- make sure and discuss end-of-life scenarios with all your family members so that you're not making decisions on the fly in the ICU and your loved one is incapacitated.

Silly_Socrates7 karma

Hey John! I just defended my dissertation which had a lot to do with dead bodies and technology. I'm super excited to get your new book.

My questions- do you think death is something necessary to humanity? I.e. if we no longer died, would we no longer be considered humans? Also, how do you think the current biomedical pursuits to 'end aging' will effect the cultural significance of death?

the_mit_press8 karma

CONGRATULATIONS on the dissertation. Well done. That's quite an accomplishment. I do think that death significantly defines what the "human" is or can be. If people no longer died, we might still be called human or we could be called something else. The 'Human' might become described like we describe the Neanderthals today. Maybe. The point on biomedical work around ageing is important because we're in this moment right now where the science and medicine have never been better at keeping people alive and yet here we are with COVID-19, caused by a novel virus, that our tools can't do a lot about. So in our attempts to 'end ageing' we've actually made death even more significant. Albeit unintentionally, but I'll add predictably.

Again -- CONGRATS!

nomnomswedishfish6 karma

[question] what are some of your favorite death related facts?

the_mit_press10 karma

The one mega fact I always think about is how many people die across the globe each year. In 2019 the all cause total death number was 56,842,500 or around 155, 732 people a day. Mortality statistics are things I find endlessly fascinating.

Some other facts, there are more women in the US funeral profession than men and it's been that way for some time now. One of the reasons embalming took off as a practice was because of 1.) the US Civil War (which everyone always says but also 2.) the railway system which needed the dead bodies preserved for shipment. I could go on and on....

nomnomswedishfish5 karma

[question] in your opinion, what do you believe happens after death?

the_mit_press7 karma

1.All posts must contain proof

I do not know. That's my best answer. Many people have beliefs (which is fine with me) but as to what definitively happens -- I cannot say.

Ezmareldavillalobos4 karma

Have you been to the museum of death in LA?

the_mit_press4 karma

No I have not. But I do know about it.

borealism-3 karma

How has technology contributed to our collective understanding of death as either the final frontier versus death as a new beginning? For instance, we can look at Nectome (the mind-uploading service that is 100% fatal) or the idea of bio-technological augmentation, which serve to push our biological limits of our existence.

the_mit_press8 karma

I think the technologies are even older than the ones you've listed. So, for example, I think that the grave is a foundational human technology for managing the dead. It's also a technology that works and one we keep using. Grave markers are another technological invention that we continue to use to convey information. But you're asking more about digital technologies, which I agree expand the conversation about what's possible after or near death. I see many of today's digital death ideas (Nectome is a good example) as outgrowths of 1970s Near Death Experiences that described seeing something after a person died. Today's digital technologies offer some of the same concepts, as in a life after death. But I'm always keen to avoid technological determinism here, as in "It's the technology doing it!!!!" It's not the technology doing anything. It's humans using the technologies. We humans find ways to use most of our technological tools when it comes to death and dead bodies -- whether it's 19th century photographs of the dead (helpfully discussed in Chapter 1 of my book) or the use of Zoom right now for funerals.

johnwallis423 karma

So when Eddie Izzard says "cake or death?" what kind of cake is it?

the_mit_press5 karma

Well, given that it's Eddie Izzard it's definitely FABULOUS!!! cake.

hannadeath3 karma

How many fellows are in the research community at the Centre for Death and Society and how does one get involved?

the_mit_press3 karma

The Centre for Death and Society (where I work) has a small number of fellows. This is my way of saying we need to update the website! Here is a link that explains how the CDAS Fellows programme works: https://www.bath.ac.uk/campaigns/centre-for-death-society-early-career-visiting-fellows-programme/

lookingrightone3 karma

[question]How dead bodies are managed and handled during mass fatality events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic?

the_mit_press6 karma

Most Governments, local and national, will have Pandemic Response Plans. Or they should. I say "should" because I've watched many governments not follow the plans they had on file -- and I'm not sure why. In cities with high mortality rates, like New York City or London, you want a centralised system for ID'ing and examining the deceased, and then working with funeral directors or other authorise who then also liaise with families. It's the same sort of system that gets used for mass fatality events like airplane crashes. COVID-19 has really challenged some local and national mass fatality response plans and I have a strong feeling that we'll see these plans re-written in the coming years.

xElMerYx3 karma

Your opinion: worst way to die?

And I don't mean the "alone in a foreign country" or"in a ditch in a war" kind of deaths. Y'know what I'm talking about.

Oh, and please, be like absolutely honest and brutal.

the_mit_press6 karma

For me -- it would be buried alive in a tight cramped space. It freaks me out even thinking about it. So basically buried alive.

In fact, in August 2014 I was the Scholar in Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn (which is now sadly closed) and I discussed the idea of building life-size 19th-century anti-premature burial device coffins that I would then be buried in to see if the devices worked. These are coffins where the deceased could ring a bell or cause a flag to flip up if they were buried alive. Many of the blueprints are available on Google. Sadly, these plans did not pan out.

amha01893 karma

I have a lot of friends who would be interested in having an unusual burial, just being put in the ground and ideally becoming soil to help plants grow. So with no casket or anything.

Could a burial like this be harmful for the soil and the wildlife? How would a decomposing human impact its resting place?

the_mit_press6 karma

There is ongoing work on human decomposition's impact on land. Katrina Spade's Recompose work (used to be the Urban Death Project) is working on precisely these questions. I recommend checking it out.

GnashingDFX_official3 karma

How will covid-19 impact the funeral industry and how people mourn their loved ones? Do you believe there will be any significant changes or risks to cultures that are very hands on with their burial rituals, as well as those who have ceremonies (some yearly) where they bring the corpse back out to honor and clean it?

the_mit_press6 karma

Great question. The practices will definitely be different for the time being, but how long these changes stay in place is hard to tell. There was a time when families were told they couldn't touch the HIV/AIDS corpse which ultimately turned out to be incorrect. It's important to state that HIV and COVID-19 are different kinds of viruses but I wouldn't be surprised if in the future, dead body handling returns to pre-COVID-19 practices. For the time being, however, everyone should expect to wear gloves and masks since it's the living mourners who represent the greatest contagion risks.

sartoriallyspeaking2 karma


the_mit_press3 karma

Those would be crimes of the heart or crimes of passion auf English. They're all over the place. British tabloids were (and remain -- I think) obsessed with murder and crimes. George Orwell wrote about this very thing and British tabloids many decades ago. As for the Centre for Death and Society, we cover all aspects of death, dying, and dead bodies. We're very interdisciplinary. We were supposed to have our annual conference in June 2020 but that got pushed into June 2021 because of COVID-19. Keep your eyes on the CDAS website for updates about the conference.

nomnomswedishfish2 karma

How can I work as a death related researcher or be a part of your studies? I didn't even know this field existed. Thanks for doing AMA.

the_mit_press6 karma

There are lots of opportunities around the world. If you're in academia then I suggest looking into the Centre for Death Society Fellows programme https://www.bath.ac.uk/campaigns/centre-for-death-society-early-career-visiting-fellows-programme/

If you're at all interested in Public Health and Death and Dying then we're about to see an enormous call for researchers in order to manage COVID-19, so I would get involved with your local-state-national Department of Health.

applepiepirate2 karma

Are you interested in having an overseas research assistant? I’m a psychology professional and would love to get involved in death studies.

the_mit_press6 karma

Rokwind2 karma

jessie ventura did n episode of his show on FEMA warehouse where millions of humansized rubbermaid containers were stacked. They were plastic coffins. My question is. Why spend so much on a coffin when we can make one out of plastic?

the_mit_press8 karma

Personal factoid -- I lived in Minnesota when Jesse Ventura was Governor. Felt like sharing that. As for the coffins -- they can be made from multiple kinds of materials! Wood. Plastic. Chipboard. Cardboard. Metal. Or skipped altogether -- use a burial shroud and no casket/coffin. Coffin construction will always involve aesthetic considerations, but also environmental concerns. I personally like the hand assembled pine board coffins.

sephstorm2 karma

Do you watch Ask a Mortician?

the_mit_press8 karma

Of course! Caitlin is a good friend. We've known each other a long time.

Hites_052 karma

What are your thoughts on stroggification?

the_mit_press2 karma

I want to be a machine. No pain. No thoughts.

miketeeeveee2 karma

Why do some deaths create emotion and others don’t. The US loses 380,000 people in long term care to infections and no one cares, but 60,000 (and counting) of pretty much the same population and people go nuts. Is it just publicity?

the_mit_press4 karma

I do think publicity and media attention play a role. Eventually COVID-19 reporting will stop leading the news and become part of the day's news. At that point we can begin to assess how public awareness about different kinds of death has changed. If at all.

WackyJackal2 karma

If zombies were real, how would you approach the situation? Like would you try to study them and try to survive or do something else?

Also how do you get a calm mindset towards death? Most people are worried about dying so I’m really curious how you go about this.

the_mit_press7 karma

Zombies. They creep me out, man. That said, of course I'd want to study them. Indeed, I think that some of my Undergrads sometimes have a little too much Thursday night before they come to class on Friday morning and appear extremely zombified.

Because I grew up around death, I've learned to respect it. So I don't know if I'm calm, per se, but I am always respectful. Always show death the respect it deserves. Death wins. Death always wins.

TJ_Fox2 karma

In what ways would you say artists (writers, performers, singers, et al) can best move the "death conversation" forward in the Western world?

the_mit_press3 karma

There's an old theatre joke which goes like this: Everything changes except the avant-garde. This is my way of saying there's a long body of work on death and dying in all the different art forms. One piece of advice I always give is this -- research the death history in your chosen medium. I've got a background in theatre and live art and I've spent years studying how different performers tackled big death issues like AIDS. That's one example. Here's my point -- most pieces of art about death and dying have been created before (and that's ok) but it's even better to work with the history of death and dying in your chosen representational practice in order to create new conversations.

owwwmyeye1 karma

What are the most interesting burial practices you know of?

the_mit_press5 karma

Burial is such a fascinating practice. What objects go in. Where the body is buried or not buried. When is it 'burial' but not in the earth, e.g., burial at sea! Land use. Cost. Ecology questions. Do people actually mean 'cremation' when they say 'burial'? I've seen this happen.

For me burial in live volcanoes is the most compelling. I grew going to Hawaii and spent a lot of my life on the islands. As a result, I have immense respect for the power of volcanoes. And if you're using a volcano, then it's both burial and cremation -- of a kind.

Sunnysolaire11 karma

How do I stop being scared to die? It won't happen (hopefully for another 60/70 years) but I can't help get into a weird panic about it? I don't know why other people aren't as scared, what if there's truly nothing and what does nothing feel like?

the_mit_press5 karma

For what it's worth -- I think it's ok to be scared. Accept your scared-ness and then think through what makes you scared about it. Not just "OH MY GOD I'M GOING TO DIE!!!!" but the elements of death and dying that cause you concern. Break it down. And you know what -- nothingness is ok, I think. I'm always staring into the void of death and it stares back far more often than I'd like. That's ok. Don't feel weird about it. Be honest with Death. And respect Death. Always respect Death.

nsdev01 karma

What are the differences between our typical image of death (funeral planned by family member,etc.) and deaths of people that have no family/friends aware of their death (e.g. homeless)?

the_mit_press2 karma

That's a great question. There's a hidden and visible quality here. So the typical image of the family funeral is a publicly visible event whereas funerals for the homeless or other invisible populations are hidden. Or worse -- just ignored. There are homeless shelters doing impressive work on creating memorial events for residents who die and I 100% support that work.

90J091 karma

Does death scare you? In any sense, the consciousness element, what physically happens to your body after death. Or are you completely at ease with the whole idea?

the_mit_press3 karma

Death doesn't scare me. I'm ready to die but I'm not eager to die. And to be frank -- I'm not sure what happens after we die. I'm guessing nothing happens but maybe we do go all Flatliners. That's for all the Kevin Bacon fans. So I accept death but I also respect death. I keep coming back to this respect point, but it's so important to me. Respect death.

lookingrightone0 karma

[question] Is it possible to know reason after look at dead body, reason of death if the death happen in what circumstances — good death, bad death, sad or nuanced death, culturally- and politically-charged death?

the_mit_press3 karma

Dead bodies always tell stories. The UK's Sue Black is a renowned Forensic Anthropologist who makes this case in all her work. We can glean a lot of information about how a person died from their dead body.

LocoLudicolo_-3 karma

How long will this coronavirus thing last? A rough estimate

the_mit_press11 karma

This is a great question. No one knows. But it's going to take a long time. Keep in mind that HIV/AIDS is still with us at 38 million dead (although a different kind of virus) and that the early promises of an HIV vaccine (which I remember so well from the 1990s) never materialised. It also took three years to create a reliable test for HIV. So I'm going to say years. Coronavirus will be with us now for years. Chapter 3 of my book is on the HIV/AIDS corpse and I've been reflecting on that historical period a lot these past few months.